For almost 20 years, the American designer Stephen Burks has been fascinated with combining aspects of handcraft with industrial design. His pioneering point of view is now being celebrated with his first major institutional show in over a decade, on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta until 5 March 2023. Titled ‘Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place’, the exhibition takes a look back at the last decade of Burks’ practice and brings together over 50 objects drawn from his key projects, as well as from a new commission, also named ‘Shelter in Place’. Viewed through a refreshed lens, Burks’ work demonstrates how his approach has consistently united art, architecture, design, craft, industry and community in one graceful swoop. 

Triadic Totems by Stephen Burks
Triadic Totems, 2016. Designed by Stephen Burks and Mongollan Studio (Francisco Lopez and Monica Brand), with One for Hundred (Austria). Photography: Joe Coscia

By honing in on and incorporating the handmade into industrial work, Burks has not only forged a path for other American designers to follow, but created a memorable creative signature for himself. No stranger to working with global manufacturers like Cappellini, Dedon, Missoni and Roche Bobois, Burks’ success recurrently comes back to his embrace of cultural diversity, be it in the form of supporting craftspeople from around the globe or drawing from his own experience as a Black American designer.

‘Stephen Burks Man Made was founded on the notion that everyone is capable of design,’ Burks recounts in an essay titled ‘Prototyping in Place’ that appears in the exhibition’s companion catalogue. ‘We believe that design is cultural production, and like art, literature, and music, it has the opportunity to represent everyone’s culture. With this in mind, we try to use design as a language capable of speaking about more than color, form, materiality, and process.’

Armchair by Stephen Burks
Traveler Outdoor Armchair with Hood, 2015, for Roche Bobois. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art

He continues, ‘As Americans, we cannot afford to leave our history behind, but we can be in control of how we carry it forward with us. As African Americans, we must continue to rely on our collective imagination to design new ways of being in community and society with each other as well as our past, present, and future.’

‘Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place’

Hanging garments by Stephen Burks
A Free Man clothing, 2013, manufactured by The White Briefs. Photography: Joe Coscia

Put together on the back of the global upheaval we all experienced in 2020, ‘Shelter in Place’ confronts many of the disparities in society, industry, creative work and beyond. By grouping objects in themes such as ‘craft as collaboration’, ‘modernist orthodoxies’, ‘weaving as metaphor’ and ‘environmental inclusion’, Burks’ industrial design practice is framed in a larger cultural context for the first time. It was during the early phase of the global pandemic that the High Museum’s curator of decorative art and design, Monica Obniski began conversations with Burks and his team to explore bringing an exhibition to life.
‘Through this exhibition, and its related publication, I’m thrilled to shed light on an American designer who has developed a unique point of view during nearly 20 years in the field,’ she says. ‘It is really important for our audiences to understand that architecture and design cross cultural and national boundaries. This is especially true for Burks’ practice that examines how objects are made by bringing together diverse perspectives and talents.’

Woven lanterns by Stephen Burks
The Others lanterns, 2017, manufactured by Dedon. Photography: Joe Coscia

In addition to debuting a collaboration with students at Berea College in Kentucky, ‘Crafting Diversity’, that highlights the inclusive and innovative nature of Burks’ design process alongside the achievements of an institution that has fostered a utopian, anti-racist culture, a highlight of the exhibition is the ‘Shelter in Place’ body of work – a series of speculative concepts that imagine new products for the home. Through proposals like ‘Woven TV’, which Burks designed as a lattice shell enveloping a TV, that also invites the user to add and weave mementos, decorative trimmings or even recycling to enliven the structure and add their mark, the series prompts a reconsideration of how design in the domestic setting should ignite joy and improve the future of living. §

Mirrors with marble frames by Stephen Burks
Friends and Neighbors mirrors, 2021, manufactured by Salvatori. Photography: Joe Coscia
Three baskets
Community Baskets, 2020, made by Berea College Student Craft, Berea College, Kentuck. Photography: Justin Skeens /Courtesy of Berea College Student Craft
Woven lanterns by Stephen Burks
Anwar lamps, 2015, manufactured by Parachilna. Photography: Joe Coscia